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Navigating a New Workplace

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Starting a new job can be both exciting and intimidating. You have to learn new computer programs and protocols, get used to the office politics and figure out where the bathroom is. And sometimes there are even bigger challenges to face. Chicago writer Beth Finke recently navigated her way around a new workplace.

I'm working downtown. Part time. It's all part of a federal grant. A Technology Opportunities Project.

Easter Seals teamed up with some software company to create a brand new Web content program. It lets blind people manage and update web sites, even though we can't see what we're doing.

I'm supposed to help them figure out if it works. My first day is all about orientation and mobility. A co-worker shows us where the elevators are, places my fingers on the button for "lobby" and for "18." Braille dots confirm I've pushed the right floor.

I get my photo taken. Later on, I'm given a set of swipe cards. One card gets my Seeing Eye dog and me into the lobby.

Another card gets us into our office suite. To keep them straight I punch Braille labels to stick on each card. One says "outside." Another, "Inside."

Locating the box to swipe on the way out of the lobby is impossible. The security guard takes my hand, leads it to the swipe. His supervisor is watching.

"Would it help if we put Braille on the box?"

It wouldn't. I'd have to find the box to read the Braille! "Can you make it so it calls out 'Beth! Over here! All day long?' " He laughs.

And then there's the bathroom key. I need to bring that along on my comings and goings, too, if I want to stop to give Hanni a drink. A dog bowl from home sits in the women's bathroom, under the sink.

The next two days is a refresher course in "jaws", the speech synthesizer that makes my computer talk. I use jaws all the time at home to write stories and send emails. But I have no idea how to use it in the office.

Turns out it's difficult to use Office Outlook without being able to see.

The Office Outlook calendar, for example. It's a picture with a grid, jaws wants to read across the screen from left to right. You know, as if it's a document. And then when you set up a time, and you invite other people to come to the appointment? The names of people who have a conflict in their schedule come up on the screen in blue. Or in red. Some color. Jaws doesn't differentiate those colors.

We were stumped.

A phone call to a blind friend in California helps. He works fulltime at a guide dogs school out there. He knows Office Outlook workarounds.

Finally now it's time to start working on the special new software. One day of training is devoted to placing a ticket image on a web page.

It's supposed to go in the upper left hand corner, encouraging donors to buy tickets to an auction. I'm meant to figure out where that image ends up on the page, whether it needs to be nudged a little to the left or to the right. A task sighted people do with the touch of a mouse.

Frustrating. And I'll never be able to see the results of my labor. Why not let me write the invite, then go to the cubicle next to mine, say, "Hey, Charlie, when you have a chance could you stick the picture of the ticket on top of this invite for me?"

In exchange, I could run and get Charlie a cup of coffee, make a phone call on his behalf, do some task that's easy for me to do as a barter.

But no. the grant says I'll learn the software. I try.

TGIF. Mike and I go out with our friend, Lydia. She writes full-time for a magazine. I tell her about my new job, about my frustrations. "Well, you know, I'm not a designer at all," she says. "But when I send a finished story to our magazine designer they want me to submit it in a certain form, with a border around it and kind of sort of how it will end up being laid out on the page." This makes me think.

If things progress in my freelance career, I guess it's possible that more and more magazines will want writers to at least do a crude layout. You know, to make the designer's job easier? And if I, the blind person, do the best job I can to submit a story like all the sighted people do, well, I might have a better chance of getting an assignment and keeping a job.

Now I look at this Easter Seals job as helping other blind people, figuring out what software might help us, what might not work at all. Telling myself I'm doing it for "the cause" helps me get through the frustration.

But I swear, at the end of each work day, my eyes hurt. And I can't even see the screen!

We still haven't figured out how to find the swipe box on our way out of the building, but thank goodness Hanni has to go out now and then. It gives me an excuse to leave the computer for a while.

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